Founders Spotlight: LostBytes

Editor's note:

Deniz Vurmaz is the founder of LostBytes, which is a sustainable waste tech startup that uses proprietary bio-digester machinery to produce organic fertilizer for plants. LostBytes is an alum of NYC Media Lab’s Combine accelerator, of the Spring 2020 cohort.

June 03, 2020

Irene: Tell us about your team – how did you get started?

Deniz: We met each other at the Energy Challenge, which was a competition hosted by American Association of Blacks in Energy. I was really passionate about my idea, and I was looking for the right team. There, I met my computer science and industrial engineering teammates. We ended up taking first place in the Energy Challenge and received a $20,000 grant. In the few months that followed the competition, our business lead joined the team and we began working on developing a prototype in the backyard of one of our apartments.

Irene: What is your focus as of now?

Deniz: We have a working prototype and an initial software program that includes weight scale, pH, and other simple biosensors that are driven by raspberry pi computing. We are working to develop a real-time monitor so that even if the user is at home they can monitor the machine remotely. This is crucial as especially in light of COVID-19, we need the ability to control the machines remotely.

We are also continuously working on data collection. Our goal is to make a data-driven, high-quality organic fertilizer based on information collected by our machine. It analyzes food waste measuring its weight, type of food, nitrogen concentration, [and other factors] that determine the quality and quantity of the fertilizer. This data collection is ongoing and will help create an integrated AI system to automate the process.

Deniz Vurmaz

Irene: Why did you choose to join the Combine?

Deniz: Last year I attended the NYC Media Lab demo day and was fascinated with the different startups presenting their innovative ideas and prototypes to an audience of 1000 people. The Combine and NYC Media Lab are great communities that support each other and help startups to grow. That was the first motivating factor for my interest. Instead of joining a school-based accelerator or program, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and d work with other startups to see what opportunities exist outside of NYU and NYC.

Irene: What are the biggest challenges you have faced since forming your team/startup?

Deniz: The first challenge for me was that my background as project manager has historically been working with professionals rather than with other university students. It has been a different experience because students mindsets differ greatly. As a team we have been trying to push each other to focus regardless of the risks we are collectively taking.. As a founder, it has been my job to push the limits and inspire my teammates to work harder.

Our second challenge was changing our value proposition. Initially, I was focusing on the conversion of food waste and electricity production. I thought that that may be more valuable for consumers, but through customer interviews we found that electricity is in high demand, but at a low cost. When analyzing the conversation of food waste into electricity, we found that there weren’t high enough profit margins. We had to switch our value proposition from electricity production to fertilizer production.

It was helpful to get feedback from interviewing more than 100 potential users/customers. At times startup founders prefer to stick with their ideas and hypothesis regardless of their feasibility. It was good to have Combine mentors steer us in the right direction.

Irene: What is the biggest lesson you have learned since joining the Combine? What are the next steps for your company/research?

Deniz: The three key lessons for me have been getting out of my comfort zone, facing challenges with talking to people, and validating hypotheses. In the beginning, I had no issues with reaching out to folks, but it became more difficult as our focus narrowed to our target customers. At times we got stuck because finding and scheduling [interviewees] can be difficult. Time conflicts have been difficult as I am also pursuing my PhD, which is unrelated to my startup.

Irene: What are next steps?

Deniz: Once we have enough data to prove our system works efficiently, we are going to implement them into the dining halls of NYU.. We may then reach out to Columbia University and other academic institutions in NYC initially. There is a NYC sponsored zero-waste by 2030 program that could be agreat opportunity for us to implement our technology..

I really like innovation and taking on new challenges. More importantly, I like helping people and the environment, and whatever I’m doing, it has to be meaningful. I would like to contribute to something, even if it’s small, as long as it makes an impact for the environment, humans, or animals. It’s my life commitment to do so, and this is the reason why I am pursuing this project.

Irene: What type of support/partnership are you currently seeking?

Deniz: We are currently looking for angel investors to raise seed funding. We’re also looking for partnerships with dining halls, hostel, and commercial kitchens.